Saturday, June 10, 2017

Particular Relationships: Some Belated Thoughts on the #appropriationprize

I had been contemplating, for some time now, a return to writing and blogging. The itch was there and needed scratching, my last post on my education blog, Where Are the Sheep, having been in early 2014, with a short one-off in 2016 addressing the whole Boyden thing. The itch had been tempered by a number of challenges, not the least of which was the feeling that I had very little to say and the acknowledgement that there were, and are, others speaking much more articulately and thoughtfully than I ever was ever able. Further to it is the ongoing challenge that I have witnessed this past week in social media and Canadian mainstream media: the ongoing effort to marginalize and silence Indigenous voices that speak out. A contributing factor to my hiatus from blogging was the angry, mainstream, usually white, voices that pushed back rather violently against us when we presented our epistemologies and views online, in the classroom or anywhere that the dominant Canadian colonial worldview and understanding has been maintained and encouraged. I was driven out because I could not emotionally handle that silencing. I worry that I still can’t, as evidenced by my limited attempts to engage online beyond a lot of retweeting and article sharing, choosing instead to let other voices carry the flag. This violence pushed me out of my teaching career and into my currently fledgling film career. I still want to have a voice and say what I need to say but I am still looking for the right way to do it.

As I was leaning into restarting my blogging, I was trying to decide if I wanted to just continue with Where Are the Sheep or leave it as an artifact of the time I was most active as an advocate for Indigenous Education. I am still very interested in Indigenous Education and still want to speak on that issue and I don’t think that Sheep is the forum for it anymore as my own thought processes have taken me beyond that time in my life and I want to explore a larger forum and have more freedom than what I had imposed on myself with that one. At the same time, understandably why remake from scratch something that is already here and functioning. I am full of contradictions.

I almost dropped the idea when all the events of the past week took place, from the #appropriationprize brouhaha to Barbara Kay’s racist attacks on all things Indigenous. Some very strong voices, Alicia Elliot and Jesse Wente among them, spoke against the anger with eloquence and with emotion and power that we are usually denied. The white supremacist default that backed up Ms. Kay’s assaults and the #appropriationprize discourse lack real gravitas with which to hang their arguments and it is hard to argue for “objectivity” when “objectivity” means so long as it isn’t Native or so long as it agrees with the version of facts that you grew up with. The attempt to reframe the conversation as one of free speech and then a lashing out against Native peoples generally is an attempt to re-centre the dominant discourse as the only one that matters. More and more often, it is failing, which is what you see here, which is why the lashing out is getting more violent and more deranged.

Where Are the Sheep in Mainstream Media’s Reflexive Self Defence?

The following section is from an old post Where Are the Sheep. I reposted it mostly because I think it might be somewhat relevant to the #appropriationprize issue: 

In the beginning of my Grad program, I was assigned an article to read, There are no sheep in post-structuralism, by Dr. AudreyThompson (it is unpublished and unavailable online, I looked, sorry).  Within the article, she argues, that when we consider race and culture, we tend to start from generalities, and by starting from generalities, we are not necessarily going to get very far from where we started.  She tells the story of a class she was teaching that was looking at the culture of the Inuit by reading the stories of three white teachers working in an Inuit community.  One of her students put up her hand asked, “Where are the sheep?”  This stopped her cold.  Not because she was wondering about sheep in northern Canada, but because, in her efforts to decenter whiteness, to remove that aspect of white privilege from the classroom that reinforces the idea that the western ideal is the proper and right one, she was reinforcing it.  The teachers in her story were grossed out when they were offered blubber (if I recall correctly), and considered it a victory, later, when they came around enough to be able to say no and not feel like they were offending their Inuit hosts.  What her student brought up to her was the fact that she was, in trying to bring in a less-white perspective, she was reinforcing it, because the teachers were not  immersing and understanding the culture and the worldview.  They were maintaining their worldview by resisting being grossed out by the other, but not learning it.

Thompson argues that in post-structuralism starts with generalizations about race instead of relationships and the acknowledgement of difference.  In attempts to decenter whiteness in coursework, to incorporate the “other”, Thompson found that it merely reinforced White privilege, because race and culture was framed by the white understanding of it.  White, Black, Indigenous, Asian, Gay, Straight, male, female all have general assumptions that can be made about them to identify them.  What do we really know about the person or the group, even after their status is made known?  When we teach about otherness, we teach in a way that the discoveries will match our expectations of what makes the “other”.

Sheep are central to the lives of the Navajo, defining relationships, identity, place and power.  They are central to economy and to education, wherein the children learn to care for the sheep, in order to learn how to develop their social responsibilities. Thompson, in her article, quotes Hasbah Charley, 1996: “My sheep are here, and I think of them as my parents…they are the ones that keep me going day after day.”  You can’t recognize sheep in post-structuralist generalizations of race.  The importance of sheep to the Navajo is that they “represent a distinctive way of organizing a world."

To look at my beloved Stó:lō', for example, where do we live?   Stó:lō means river.  Do you see an important relationship that might be particular to the Stó:lō people?  The sockeye are our forefathers, they are our food and the food of our children.  They are central to how we came to be.  To you see a particular relationship there?  What happened to the Cree, Saulteaux and other Plains nations when the Canadians and Americans decimated the bison herds?  Do you see an important relationship that might be particular to these nations?

What is missing because we do not know how to value it?  We look at the Cree and Inuit from the perspective of the white women and their point of view, which doesn’t see any particulars in the culture they are “helping”, except as it affects them.  Non-Aboriginal people might need to re-examine their own understanding of themselves (as should we all), accept a little humility and be willing to examine how a race or culture is shaped by the need to get up and take care of the sheep, or pay the proper respect to the sockeye.

 Audrey Thompson's article is published, in Philosophy of Education 2008 (Ronald Glass, Ed., Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society). It's on p. 193-201.

No comments:

Post a Comment